Shift Work and Breast Cancer: A Presumptive Link?

March 18th, 2009 by

Marcellus, a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, muses that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark.” To the contrary, there is a spirit of generosity in Denmark that is increasingly rare in this troubled world. We are dealing here with the issue of compensability of cancers that may or may not be work related. As we have discussed in previous blogs, in the states, unless cancer-suffering workers are firefighters, they are unlikely to receive comp benefits for any forms of cancer. Most doctors are reluctant to establish a definitive link between workplace exposures and cancers, even when there is compelling evidence of a connection.
Denmark has a different take on the matter.
Thirty-seven women in Denmark have won the right to compensation after claiming that their breast cancer was linked to their long-term (20 plus years) of night shift work. (We have blogged the possible link between shift work and cancer here.) The state-run disability agency received 75 applications for compensation in 2008. They awarded benefits in 37 cases, as they could find no other significant factors that might explain the development of breast cancer.
Denmark might even take this one step further: they are considering whether to establish the presumption that breast cancer is an occupational illness. In other words, just as many firefighters with cancer in America are presumed to have a work-related condition, women workers with breast cancer in Denmark may benefit from a similar presumption. (It’s safe to say that no such presumptions are likely to take root in our comp system.)
Denmark is in the vanguard of worker-friendly governments. Here is just a sampling:

Some of the latest collective bargaining decisions have been an increase of the annual holiday from five to six weeks at some workplaces, an increased proportion of the wages set aside for pensions and increased access to further education. In the new agreements in 2007, many industries introduced three weeks’ paternity leave on full pay. Woman already have four weeks’ pregnancy leave and 20 weeks’ maternity leave.

I know that some of our readers will chastise the Danes for operating a welfare state. Certainly, the Danish tax structure reflects the costs of providing robust benefits for all workers. But Denmark has a total population of only 5.5 million – one metropolitan area in the states. The scale of their social engineering is tiny by American standards.
In these days of market turmoil, where scoundrels cash out huge bonuses and ordinary workers struggle to support their families, we might take a few moments to question the efficiency and fairness of unbridled markets. In times like these, a case can be made for a strong government presence, and, perhaps, for generosity itself. As Hamlet reminds us, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Given the state of the economy, we have a lot of thinking to do.